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'My instincts took over'

Becky Vargo • Sep 30, 2016 at 10:00 AM

It’s the Coast Guard’s mission to save people’s lives, but sometimes they just can’t be there.

That’s why people like Grand Haven resident Joe Bidawid are singled out when they perform a heroic service, said Senior Chief Justin Olson of Coast Guard Station Grand Haven.

Bidawid, 46, was presented the Coast Guard’s Capt. David P. Dobbins Award for excellence in search and rescue during a ceremony Thursday morning at Coast Guard Station Grand Haven.

“We can’t be everywhere,” said Capt. Amy Cocanour, commander of Sector Lake Michigan. “We appreciate our partners and citizens being in the right place at the right time.”

Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb also presented Bidawid with a city resolution honoring his efforts.

The big waves attract people to the lake and piers, McCaleb said, but they don’t always know the danger.

“Folks from out of town are not familiar with it and don’t know that a couple inches of water can sweep you off your feet,” she said.

That was the case on Sunday, July 17. It was a warm and very breezy day. Bidawid, who is a professional surfer, said that it was so windy that he struggled with whether or not to go surfing or paddling that day.

The wind direction caused Bidawid to choose the north shore, and that proved to be a key decision for a New Jersey man.

Emergency crews responded to the north pier late that afternoon after the waves swept the New Jersey man off the pier. Bidawid said he noticed a lot of people standing around, but didn’t realize there was anyone in distress when he went into the water.

As he paddled through the huge waves, Bidawid eventually heard someone screaming for help. He then saw a hand rising and falling in a choppy Lake Michigan.

Bidawid yelled at the man to tell him that he was coming, but lost sight of him several times. When he finally reached the victim, the man lunged onto the board, knocking Bidawid into the water.

Eventually, Bidawid was able to get the man on the paddleboard, while he stayed in the water and swam the board to shore.

“I think my instincts took over,” Bidawid told the group attending Thursday’s ceremony. He said adrenalin kicked in and, “at the end of the day, survival took over.”

Bidawid said he was scared and exhausted when he reached the shore, where others took care of the victim and he took his paddleboard back to his car.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life on the lake,” Bidawid said. “Over time, I got to a level where I can venture out into dangerous conditions. My claim to fame is I’m always at the right place at the right time, and my friends show up later.”

Bidawid’s wife, Tammy said: “When Joe came home that day, he was incredibly calm, but I had sensed that something had happened. Once Joe shared the details of the event with me, it made me realize the seriousness of the situation. It took me some time to reflect and to realize what an important act that Joe had performed.

“I'm very proud of him, and I am truly thankful that Joe was able to save a life,” she said. “I'm elated and honored that Joe was able to receive the Coast Guard award, and it means a lot to our family.”

Bidawid said it is an honor to receive the awards and to be inside the Coast Guard Station.

“I thank you all for your service,” he said to the Coast Guard men and women, as well as Grand Haven Department of Public Safety and Ottawa County Sheriff’s officials attending the event.

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